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Review: “Teen Titans: The Judas Contract” – Old Wine, New Label

by on April 28, 2017

Teen Titans: The Judas ContractThe new animated movie Teen Titans: The Judas Contract presents an interesting set of contradictions. It’s an adaptation of a renowned superhero comic book story by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, but its big surprise twist has been known for decades now. It’s also being added to a DC animated universe continuity where nearly all the players are different from the original story and plot elements can call back to movies released three years ago. Like all the recent DC direct-to-video animated features, Teen Titans: The Judas Contract is a solidly entertaining movie, even if I find the series continues to be a little too reliant on past glories. The comics many of these movies were based on became classics because they were willing to push boundaries into daring, new territory when they were first released, but The Judas Contract plays it safe by sticking solidly to known ground.

The title superteam was last seen almost exactly a year ago in Justice League vs. Teen Titans. Led by the statuesque deposed alien princess Starfire, the Titans have welcomed back veteran member Nightwing/Dick Grayson and a newcomer named Terra, whose Earth-controlling powers are almost as untamed as she is. The Titans are focused on taking down a cult-like organization called the H.I.V.E., unaware that they are already in the crosshairs of the cult’s leader: the enigmatic Brother Blood. Before long, the Titans are crossing swords with the ninja assassin Deathstroke (last seen in Son of Batman, and causing much friction with Damian Wayne/Robin), but completely unaware of the danger that lurks much closer than they can imagine.

Teen Titans: The Judas ContractEven revealing that much can easily telegraph the big twist, if only due to the law of conservation of characters (any new character introduced must be directly involved in the overarching plot). It’s also impossible not to un-know the twist if you’re familiar with the original New Teen Titans comic book story or the central story arc of the original Teen Titans animated series second season. It’s hard not to feel like this animated version of Teen Titans: The Judas Contract wants to eat its cake and have it too: relying on the original story in broad strokes while hoping that the cast changes, callbacks, and cosmetic alterations are enough to make the story feel fresh again. I don’t think it’s much of a criticism to say that the movie is not entirely successful in meeting all these goals. While The Judas Contract is still a thoroughly entertaining piece of superhero soap opera, the changes are only cosmetic which make the entire thing feel overly familiar. Then again, both of these statements have been true of many of the recent DC animated movies. The first adaptation on the Teen Titans TV show was more successful in escaping the shadow of the original by radically shifting all but the biggest central plot elements and while casting it in terms that much younger viewers could understand (and then following-up on the big arc with the series’ enigmatic finale).

You are not mistaken if you are detecting more than a little ambivalence about this movie on my part. The original Judas Contract was notable at the time for pushing boundaries in superhero comics and in the way it specifically targeted audience expectations and genre conventions for its big plot twist. It has easily earned its place in the comic book superhero hall of fame, but the influence of the original (let alone seminal works like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen) means that the twists have become the new genre conventions, and this new movie doesn’t replace the audacity of the original with much beyond a little more profane language, more violence, and different continuity. This was more-or-less the same thing that happened in Justice League vs. Teen Titans, where the original New Teen Titans by Wolfman and Perez was groundbreaking because it was genuinely new, but the movie was content to ride on the familiarity of the property and the characters. It is the curse of successful rebels that they soon become the Establishment, and this adaptation of Teen Titans: The Judas Contract is a perfect object lesson in that truth.

Teen Titans: The Judas ContractNone of the above is meant to disparage the sheer entertainment value of the movie, though. Like the original comics and the first TV series, Teen Titans: The Judas Contract wrings a lot of mileage out of a very likeable group of heroes, with mainstay Cyborg replaced by Blue Beetle/Jaime Reyes (who successfully channels most of Cyborg’s not-quite-human angst), while the new Robin/Damian Wayne is the same delightfully disruptive influence as he is in the Batman movies. It’s even a little disappointing that Robin doesn’t do more in this movie. Injecting him into a familiar story is often all that is needed to push it into new and unfamiliar places, but his tendency to upend expectations feels blunted in this movie, perhaps because the plot is asked to juggle so many plot elements at once.

The voice cast of Justice League vs. Teen Titans all return to reprise their roles, with Kari Wahlgren turning in an exceptional performance as Starfire, who spars playfully with Sean Maher’s Dick Grayson/Nightwing. The late Miguel Ferrer turns in a wonderfully grounded performance as Deathstroke, soldily moving the character away from Ron Perlman’s iconic performance as the character in the Teen Titans TV series. This version of Terra is quite abrasive, fitting in the spirit of the original character if not quite achieving the same emotional resonance due to the relatively short running time of the movie. I’m not completely sold on the vocal performance of Christina Ricci as Terra, but the occasional awkward read doesn’t detract too much from her performance or the movie as a whole.

Teen Titans: The Judas ContractIt is no surprise that the character design and animation quality are excellent, although I was surprised to see a number of shots where characters seemed off-model or awkwardly animated. To pick two examples, Terra seemed especially off in a H.I.V.E. raid early in the movie, and the first scene of Nightwing and Starfire moving into an apartment together felt awkward and jerky. The Blu-ray comes with two major bonus features, with “Titanic Minds: Reuniting Wolfman and Perez” easily worth the price of admission. This half-hour documentary alternates between solo interviews of New Teen Titans co-creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez, and a meeting of the two discussing their work on the comic, old times, and their long-standing friendship. The respect and admiration each has for the other is obvious and palpable, making their conversation quite enjoyable, especially for fans of their work. The second 10-minute featurette centering on Deathstroke will largely be of interest to comic fans, yielding some interesting anecdotes and thoughts on his character traits from assorted creators. In addition to the sneak peek at the upcoming Batman and Harley Quinn (which looks like more fun than a barrel of monkeys), we get two past looks at earlier DC animated features and two of the central episodes from the Teen Titans TV show. Unfortunately, the first of these (“Terra”) looks like a standard-definition TV-aspect ratio master that’s been squashed and stretched to fit a high-definition aspect ratio. It looks spectacularly awful, even compared to the upscaled original release DVD. The second (“Titan Rising”) looks much better, taken from a master in the correct aspect ratio and presenting a much sharper image overall.

Teen Titans: The Judas Contract ultimately doesn’t make any major changes beyond the surface. I admit I never understood the fan clamor for another adaptation when the Teen Titans version already did an excellent job of it and when the major reason seemed to be so they could see a reprise of a plot twist that they’ve known for years. Now that Warner Bros. has finally decided that the movie can find an audience (which was why an earlier attempt was aborted way back in 2010), I’m still left wondering whether it was worth it to adapt the story no matter how much I genuinely liked the movie. Teen Titans: The Judas Contract is a fine, well-assembled, and entertaining product that I still think didn’t really needed to happen.

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